Making History

Pauline Ovalle standing in a field with with her platoon
Ovalle directs her platoon to pursue a guerilla squad of cadets on top of a hill during a field exercise in Yolo County meant to prepare her team for summer training at Fort Knox.

Pauline Ovalle’s ’17 battle buddy shakes her awake after a 30-minute power nap. It’s 4 a.m. “I hear something,” her buddy says. As part of  their two-week combat training at the Fort Knox Cadet Leadership Course (CLC), Ovalle and her buddy have learned to sleep in shifts,  tucked away in bushes and behind trees. The course is required of all fourth year ROTC students in the U.S. and Puerto Rico. Although other UC Davis students are present, Ovalle is the only Aggie in her company. 

It’s before dawn, but still blazing hot in Fort Knox, Kentucky. It has been  more than a week since Ovalle had a shower. She is painfully aware of the layers of sweat beneath her fatigues, and the dirt in her hair and around her ears.

She grabs her gear. 

“Over there,” whispers Ovalle, who is currently serving as the heavy weapons squad leader on this mission. She and her team are already on the move.

Bang! Bang! Light flashes a few dozen yards away. 

At the leadership course, the guns are loaded with blanks; but, otherwise, the combat feels the same as war. There are people who play the part of villagers, others play the enemy.

“Everything felt real, but the most challenging part of CLC was the terrain,” explained Ovalle. “The whole time you’re with your weapon and  your rucksack, and you have to go up and down hills, and you’ll get attacked so you’ll run for cover or for a certain position to react to the contact you’re receiving from the enemy. So that was tough, but at the same time I enjoyed it because I got stronger from going up all those hills and carrying that stuff.”

Gearing up to make her mark

Ovalle, a San Francisco native, originally came to UC Davis because it was close to home, and she also admired the academic rigor and culture of the university. Since then, she discovered her calling for infantry.

If Ovalle achieves her goal to become an infantry officer, she will make history as the first female from Northern California to do so. The first female officers joined the U.S. Army’s infantry branches in April 2016. Ovalle will find out in November 2016 whether or not she will be detailed infantry—a goal she’s had since coming to UC Davis. Early in her time as an Aggie student, Ovalle fell in love with the job of leading a team.

“The whole time you’re with your weapon and your rucksack, and you have to go up and down hills, and you’ll get attacked so you’ll run for cover ... that was tough, but at the same time I enjoyed it because I got stronger from going up all those hills and carrying that stuff.”

- Pauline Ovalle

The basic requirements to join the infantry include being between the ages of 17 and 34 and being a citizen of the U.S., along with different  physical training scores based on age brackets. Academic standards also influence decisions. Ovalle believes her GPA of 3.6 and perfect Physical Training score put her in good standing to be approved for the infantry. 

“It’s a little nerve-wracking to have both my assignment and where I will live decided for me by cadet command,” she said. “I want infantry,  but it’s not in my hands. So I’m nervous because sometimes you feel like you deserve something, but you might not always get it. Still, I try  to remind myself that, no matter what, I should get combat arms. So even if I don’t get infantry, I’ll get armor, and I’ll still have a strenuous and stressful job that is combat related.”

As she pursues her goal, she has received an enormous amount of support from her Aggie community— including superiors and peers. 

“Lieutenant Colonel Brian Knieriem, who is the professor of military science and senior military officer on campus, is always asking me how I’m doing,” she said. “Our instructors are also always interested in our academic and personal lives in addition to how we’re doing in ROTC, and they’re very supportive of my goals.” 

In addition to participating in ROTC, Ovalle stays fit by playing semi-professional soccer on Sacramento’s Primero de Mayo team and also lifts weights, working out an average of 12-plus hours per week. Her fitness schedule can be difficult to maintain on top of her studies, but she discovered during her second-year at UC Davis that it is easier for her to manage her academics if she studies at the library with friends—much like how she benefits from a battle buddy in the field. 

“If I go home, I fall asleep because I’m so tired sometimes,” she said. “So having company really helps me study.”